Polish composer Henryk Górecki died on November 12th leaving behind a small body of work and one very remarkable piece, the Symphony Number 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Although this piece was composed in 1976, it gained prominence and worldwide fame in a 1992 London recording by conductor David Zinman featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw.
I remember hearing a report on NPR while driving to work about this piece and they played a bit of it. It might have been the second movement; I don't remember and I haven't been able to find the original audio report. However, this much I do know. For the first time ever I pulled over, stopped the car and listened to the rest of the report. I fished around for a scrap of paper to write down then name of this composer and I only got part of it right: Goriki. Polish. Symphony.
I put the scrap of paper in my wallet and carried it around for a year, stopping in every music store I visited looking for this recording. I looked locally and when I travelled I checked out music stores but to no avail. This is before Google and Amazon, remember! (How did we survive?)
Anyway, over a year later I was in Phoenix and while browsing a large music store there I found it. Under the letter G in the classical section. Symphony No. 3. I bought it.
Although the first few times I played the piece I really enjoyed it, my epiphany didn't come until one fateful evening, home alone, I decided to follow along with the program notes and read the lyrics in English because the symphony was sung in Polish.
My life was changed. Forever.
Once I read the lyrics and understood the Sorrowful Songs I understood. I felt the pain, the anguish, the despair, the hopelessness and the hope, the healing and the optimism. All at once. Unfortunately, or maybe it's a gift, I can no longer just enjoy the music for music's sake. I know what it means and it affects me profoundly.
The songs are about loss, fear, anxiety, all the horrors of war and love. Ultimately love. Love for lost ones. Love for hope. Love for loved ones.
"And you, God's little flowers
May you blossom all around
So that my son
May sleep happily."
In talking with people who have listened to and understood this symphony there are different "tipping points." Points during the piece where one's emotions rise to the surface like a pot of boiling pasta ready to overflow, an emotional release that can't be stopped. For me it's around the 6-minute mark during the second movement. This movement consists of a series of building ascending tones that reach a wail of sorrow (to me) at this point. Even though I know it's coming, or perhaps because I know it's coming, I can't resist my own emotional release.
I find the middle of the first movement an introduction, or a warning, of what's to come.
Oddly, I really like the Symphony of Sorrowful songs, but only play it when I feel a need for catharsis. I don't listen to it for joy but feel some joy at the end. I guess it's like a rite. I'm going to play it tonight, strap on the Bose QC-15's step off the cliff. I know where I'm going; I've been there before. I owe it to Henryk and the people he wrote about.
Here's a sample. The second movement. Watch out for the 6-minute mark.
My son, my chosen and beloved
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,
And always served you faithfully
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.
(Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery from the "Lysagóra Songs" collection. Second half of the 15th century)
No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Support me always.
"Zdrowas Mario." (*)
(Prayer inscribed on wall 3 of cell no. 3 in the basement of "Palace," the Gestapo's headquarters in Zadopane; beneath is the signature of Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, and the words "18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944.")
(*) "Zdrowas Mario" (Ave Maria)—the opening of the Polish prayer to the Holy Mother
Where has he gone
My dearest son?
Perhaps during the uprising
The cruel enemy killed him
Ah, you bad people
In the name of God, the most Holy,
Tell me, why did you kill
Will I have his support
Even if I cry
My old eyes out
Were my bitter tears
to create another River Oder
They would not restore to life
He lies in his grave
and I know not where
Though I keep asking people
Perhaps the poor child
Lies in a rough ditch
and instead he could have been
lying in his warm bed
Oh, sing for him
God's little song-birds
Since his mother
Cannot find him
And you, God's little flowers
May you blossom all around
So that my son
May sleep happily
(Folk song in the dialect of the Opole region)
Postscript - I'm sitting here and the second movement has started. I'm in the grip already. Ah, the purge has begun.